Political parties hold a special place in modern theories of democracy. They were not popular when anticipated by the founders of the U.S. Constitution (see Madison's Federalist Paper no. 10), and they are not generally thought well of by the general U.S. public today (Dennis, 1978; Wattenberg, 1986). Nevertheless, it is difficult to envision representative democracy in complex societies without competitive political parties.
Two different models of party competition are commonly presented, usually as if the two models are in direct competition with one another. One is the “responsible parties model, ” which as a prescriptive doctrine promotes ideologically distinct political parties. The other, sometimes called the “public opinion” model (Page, 1978), is more commonly called the “Downs” model after the theorist Anthony Downs (1957). While it is common to juxtapose these two models as competing with one another, they are in fact complementary, each drawing on different aspects of party motivation. The responsible parties model emphasizes the policy or ideological motivations of party elites, which push party positions away from center. The Downs model emphasizes the electoral incentives pushing politicians toward the center in order to get elected. As we will see, the positions of state political parties represent both sets of forces.
The responsible parties doctrine was a product of political science thinking in the 1940s and 1950s. Inspired by British electoral experience, its advocates (Schattschneider, 1942; Committee on Political Parties, 1950) favored strongly disciplined and cohesive political parties that would offer distinct policy programs. According to the design, responsible parties were to be internally democratic, so that party activists would control the content of party programs.